The Supreme Court Can Fix Qualified Immunity

The Supreme Court Can Fix Qualified Immunity

Daniel Becker

The doctrine of qualified immunity has come under increasing scrutiny. While Justice Sotomayor has led the charge for reform at the Supreme Court level, lower federal courts have begun to call for a reevaluation of the doctrine. One court called the current application of qualified immunity “overprotective of police and at odds with the original purpose of section 1983.” On the Fifth Circuit, Judge Willett criticized “the kudzu-like creep of the modern immunity regime.” Critics point out that qualified immunity is extremely difficult for plaintiffs to surmount, which often results in no remedy being granted for violations of a plaintiff’s rights. Two simple tweaks to qualified immunity may be able to bring the doctrine back to its roots and allow the validation of violated rights.

Courts apply a two-part test to determine whether an officer is entitled to a grant of qualified immunity. The first part of the test asks whether the officer’s conduct violated a constitutional right. The second part of the test is to determine whether the law was clearly established at the time such that the officer should have known that the conduct was unlawful. The purpose of qualified immunity is to protect officers when they act in tense situations where the law has not provided clear guidelines. Thus, qualified immunity is granted unless the officer violated a clear constitutional right and the officer’s conduct was clearly established as unlawful at the time of the incident.

Ideally, a growing body of case law would establish what conduct violates constitutional rights and would slowly eliminate the gray areas in the law. This, however, is not the case. The Supreme Court does not mandate that courts answer whether a constitutional right was violated. Courts often find it easier to decide that the law was not clearly established in a given case, instead of first finding that the conduct was a constitutional violation and then finding that it was not clearly established. Thus, the growing body of case law, which would gradually eliminate some of the legal gray areas around constitutional violations, never grows. This is precisely the point Judge Willett made in his concurrence. Avoiding the first test necessarily forces the stagnation of the second test because the law will never be clearly established. To fix this stagnation problem, the Supreme Court can mandate that lower courts apply both prongs of the test to all cases, which they were required to do from 2001 until 2009.

Another potential solution to the difficulty of prevailing on a claim that constitutional rights have been violated is for the Supreme Court to restore the ability of courts to examine the intent of the officer. This would move the qualified immunity from an objective analysis based on what a reasonable officer would do to a subjective analysis based on the officer’s intent when he performed an action. For example, the Supreme Court sustained a qualified immunity defense where an officer killed the driver of a fleeing car. The car was about to hit a spike strip when the officer opened fire. The officer would later tell his superior officer “How’s that for proactive?” Because qualified immunity is an objective analysis, these words could not be used in the Court’s legal analysis. Under a subjective analysis, however, those words could show the reckless disregard the officer had for the law and thereby bar him from successfully asserting qualified immunity.

Qualified immunity is an important doctrine. It tries to balance the interests of officers in performing their duty without fear of legal consequence, the interests of citizens in the protection of their constitutional rights, and the interests of society in law enforcement and protection from crime. The courts increasingly appear to have skewed that balance in favor of law enforcement. Spurring the growth of a body of case law to establish when conduct violates the constitution and allowing courts to look at the subjective intentions of officers would go a long way toward fixing the doctrine.

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